World-Building & Public History: Connecting the Dots

The Top-Down Approach in History

As described in my last post, the top-down approach is generally an easier method to construct a cohesive narrative – a story without voids in knowledge that would cast doubt on the accountability and thoroughness of the author. There is undoubtedly an unacknowledged fear of ignorance in authorship and the practice of history. I would argue that a healthy fear of perceived poor scholarship or having ‘loose ends’ is one of the largest factors that influences what projects are undertaken and in what format their creator chooses to utilize.

While many examples of work I would consider top-down are up for debate in the literary academic community, the fact that most history anthologies before recent years, (let’s suppose 1990 for the sake or argument) utilize the top-down methodology to construct narratives around authors’ arguments.

One of the most popular formats for producing historical materials in narrative format was the classical historical anthology series. A great example of this would be the Great Ages of Man book series, by TIME-LIFE. Each part of the anthology encompasses a wide breadth of knowledge about a particular region at a particular time. The series includes such titles as, Age of Faith, Age of Kings, and Age of Progress, which are all suggestive of ideas rather than localities. Also included are books like Ancient America and Early Japan, which do clearly suggest the locale and the timeframe. There are twenty-one books in the series, and only four take place outside of Europe. The ways in which the authors construct narratives in the non-European focused books inevitably lead into European contact and domination. This would suggest that the authors constructed the narratives with a specific endpoint in mind – the trend of European colonization and dominion is the culmination of world history. History has traditionally been the story of wealthy white men in power – this is established and a subject we’ve beaten over the head constantly in our discussions in class and elsewhere. As such it is not surprising that this series, created in the 1960’s utilized the same approach. But why?


Again, it is fear of incorporating new narratives and challenging established authorities in history. It’s fear that years of research studying localities, traditions of indigenous people and interviewing a wide cross-section of people that prevents many from creating a truly original narrative. While many history anthologies do begin in such a way, if we’re to judge by the TIME-LIFE series, leading these new and interesting narratives of foreign people and cultures into the comfortable territory of European involvement and records is a way to preserve the establishment.

The Bottom-Up Approach In History

Finally, let’s talk about the bottom-up approach, Its incredible benefits, and also the deep challenges with this elaborate methodology. To begin, let’s think about the questions we ask as historians. Let’s assume the topic at hand is the lack of Tejano monuments in San Antonio, and the argument being made is that there are deep-seated feelings of resentment towards that community by those in power, and a fear of acknowledging the non-European histories of San Antonio. Obviously, yeah… this is a pretty aggressive argument to make, but is not one without foundation.

What should we ask? Where should we begin?

The Top-Down Historian: Well, I would begin by thinking about the socio-economic status and political efficacy of Tejanos in the state of Texas, in whose hands these decisions often end up. If Tejanos’ interests were equally important to those of whites in Texas, their history would be memorialized equally as well.

The Bottom-Up Historian: Whoa there, I didn’t know this would turn into an argument about politics and socio-economics. I thought the question was about the lack of Tejano monuments in San Antonio. We should restrict the questions to the community of San Antonio at first. Who are the Tejano leaders in San Antonio? What is the proportion of Tejano politicians to Anglo-American politicians? We should quantify Tejano monuments against European-style architectural monuments and determine the extent of the disparity. How vocal are Tejanos about the ways in which their history is being ignored? How do Anglos react? What community projects are there in San Antonio to memorialize Tejano historical buildings and artifacts?

From this brief conversation alone, it should be apparent that the bottom-up methodology is far more difficult to approach, but far more rewarding. Bottom-up has the potential to provide you with a greater number of relevant questions to ask, all the while allowing you to keep the subject in focus.


3 Replies to “World-Building & Public History: Connecting the Dots”

  1. The feeling that you’re missing something, or that there are loose ends that can’t quite be tied up really does keep a historian up at night! It’s very easy not to know something, or to miss small but vital information– there’s just too much knowledge in the world.

  2. Yeah, I agree whole-heartedly. It just makes me think of that old Isaac Newton quote.

    “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

    It really makes you ask yourself ‘So what?’ more and more in terms of your own work and the things left undiscovered.

  3. I recall you sharing that about the books that contained most of Euro-centric history and I was completely baffled. Thinking and doing different types of approaches to research really opens up a world of opportunity that was has existed in these spaces before.

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